Travelling Post Offices No More


Came across these in my collection recently, and it set me to ask why we don’t carry post by train anymore – more specifically, why no “Royal Mail” coaches, whether TPOs or not?

It started on the Grand Junction Railway in 1838 – the first time mail was sorted on a moving train, and was still being done over 150 years later.  The platforms of major stations would invariably see mini-mountains of mailbags, some stacked, some on platform trolleys, but all being transported by rail.

We still use postal services for letters and parcels – well mostly junk mail I suppose – but they still need to travel in bulk between ‘sorting offices’ – or have they gone too?  Maybe they’ve called them distribution centres, or regional post logistics management centres.

To be fair, it all seemed to start going pear shaped back in the 1990s, when the LDC (London Distribution Centre) was opened as the ‘hub’ for long distance mail transport.  Around the same time, Royal Mail had 16 four-car Class 325 electric multiple units built by ABB just to transport mail.

Class 325 TPO set

ABB (Derby) Standard Mk.III Royal Mail 25k v ac overhead 4-car emu No.325 002 “Royal Mail North Wales & North West” speeding passed Headstone Lane on a Willsden Railnet – Shieldmuir postal service, 10/09.     Photo: Hugh Llewelyn [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Class 114 taken during its final year of service, in June 2013.     Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Some earlier designs of multiple unit, such as the Class 114 were converted from passenger carrying to mail carrying services, which were operated by the Rail Express Services – a development from British Rail’s business sectors in the 1980s.


A TPO built on the 1950s design of Mark 1 coach, with the mailbag capture and release gear attached to the two recesses at either end of the vehicle. In classic post office red, the TPO is carried on BT4 bogies, first introduced in 1963.                                                                                      Photo By P.A.King CC BY 2.0,

It would not be fair to say that the loss of rail mail was due to technology changes at Royal Mail alone, since the 1990s privatisation of British Rail had a big part to play. Under the brand Rail Express Systems and their successor EWS still operated some services, but in 2003 Royal Mail decided to suspend transport of mail by rail.  The last TPO services operated on the overnight service on 9th January 2004.   This brought to an end  166 years of sorting mail on trains in the UK.


A close-up view of the mailbag receiving gear at the end of TPO No. 80337, during its final years of operation under the EWS banner after rail privatisation.                                             By Evelyn Simak, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

A fair number of the vehicles that went tpo make up the mail train have been preserved at locations around the UK.  The trains themselves in their later yearswere typically made up with these vehicles:

  • Post Office Sorting Van
  • Post Office Stowage Van
  • Brake Post Office Stowage Van
  • Propelling Control Vehicle
  • Brake Van
  • General Utility Van

Perhaps the most notorious incident to occur was the 1963 “Great Train Robbery“.  This took place on the early morning of 8th August 1963, and involved the up postal from Glasgow Central to London Euston.  The train was hauled by one of the new English Electric Type 4 diesels, No. D326, with 12 carriages and carrying 72 post office staff, together with the crew of Driver Jack Mills and Fireman/Second man David Whitby.   The robbery was carried out by two criminal gangs, and driver Jack Mills’ injuries by the gang contributed significantly to his suffering over a number of years, until his death in 1970.


Taken on the Colne Valley Railway in 2007, this shows one of the preserved TPO vehicles, with its letterbox in the side – for 1st class mail only!                                                                                         Oxyman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

So although mechanised sorting offices had effectively eliminated the need to sort on board long distance trains, these specialised multiple units were used until the end of 2014.  For the past 4 years, mail has only been transported by road – HGVs pounding up and down the motorways, and a plethora of smaller vans delivering mail, and parcels across the country.

Related Posts on this site:

The Post Office Tube Railway

Some interesting links:

The Night Mail




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